Twitter and Privacy: History Never Retweets

Ever had a case of the *tipsy tweets*?

You know what I’m talking about. The type of tweets you’d never post to Twitter sober but that seem highly amusing after a couple of alcoholic beverages. The ones you rush to delete on Monday morning in a coffee-induced panic when you remember what or who you tweeted. Yeah those.

Well, the next time your fingertip hovers over the send button after you’ve had a few, you might want to think twice about letting it make contact with the keyboard.

It turns out that the Library of Congress has decided to digitally archive EVERY public tweet that has been posted to Twitter since the site launched in 2006. With 50 million tweets processed by Twitter every day, that adds up to billions of messages.

The Announcement

The news came in mid April, first via the Library of Congress’s own Twitter account and then via public announcement during Twitter’s first Chirp conference for developers. This was followed up by blog posts from both the Library and Twitter.

Why Archive Tweets?

So why the interest in digitally archiving tweets and is it really necessary? Staff at the Library of Congress think so:

“Twitter is part of the historical record of communication, news reporting, and social trends – all of which complement the Library’s existing cultural heritage collections.  It is a direct record of important events such as the 2008 U.S. presidential election or the *Green Revolution* in Iran. It also serves as a news feed with minute-by-minute headlines from major news sources such as Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

At the same time, it is a platform for citizen journalism with many significant events being first reported by eyewitnesses,” said Matt Raymond, the Library of Congress’s Director of Communications.

“Individually tweets might seem insignificant, but viewed in the aggregate, they can be a resource for future generations to understand life in the 21st century.”

Don’t Panic

Now before you panic about your entire Twitter history being laid bare to a grubby public, you should know that there are some protections in place.

Twitter has insisted there be at least a six-month window between the original date of a tweet and its date of availability for internal library use, non-commercial research, public display and preservation by the Library of Congress. Private account information and deleted tweets will not be part of the archive. Neither will linked information such as pictures and URLs.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington also doesn’t see a problem with it:

“I think folks understand that whatever they post on Twitter is meant to be searchable”, says their senior counsel John Verdi.

“I don’t see a big issue here.”

That might change, he says, if the US government tried to identify individuals through their tweets or by cross checking user tweets with their information from other federal databases.

Personally, I can see this happening unless further protections are put in place. It’s probably happening every day.

Gift Wrapped

It’s important to note that the Library did not purchase the archive. It was gifted from Twitter and the original legal document outlining the donation [PDF link] is publicly available via PDF.

“Recently, the Library of Congress signaled to us that the public tweets we have all been creating over the years are important and worthy of preservation. Since Twitter began, billions of tweets have been created”, says Twitter co-founder Biz Stone in their official blog post about the donation:

“Today, fifty-five million tweets a day are sent to Twitter and that number is climbing sharply. A tiny percentage of accounts are protected but most of these tweets are created with the intent that they will be publicly available. Over the years, tweets have become part of significant global events around the world – from historic elections to devastating disasters.”

“It is our pleasure to donate access to the entire archive of public Tweets to the Library of Congress for preservation and research.”

About the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States and it is the largest library in the world, regularly researched by government staff, law enforcement agencies, law firms, authors, scholars, scientists, students and academics. The Library receives more than 1.75 million readers and visitors annually and employs a staff of more than 3,600. According to Twitter, it’s a logical home for their archive.

What Does it All Mean?

So with billions of tweets added to the federal archive, how can we expect the data to be used? With Twitter’s entire history archived, it shouldn’t be long before we see tweets being used as evidence in criminal trials and various lawsuits.

Tweets have already been cited in defamation cases such as the one between 25 year-old Chicago resident Amanda Bonnen and her landlord, Horizon Group Management LLC. Following a disagreement with Horizon Group about mold allegedly found in her apartment, Bonnen posted on her public Twitter account:

“Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay”, to which Horizon Group responded with a defamation case to the tune of USD 50,000.

Although a Google-cache of her now deactivated account shows she had just 17 followers, Horizon claimed Bonnen’s tweet severely damaged their good name because it was published “worldwide”. Ironically, the publicity the case received probably did more damage to Horizon’s public image than Bonnen’s limited tweet. The case was thrown out due to lack of specific context in the tweet, but it does set an interesting precedent for other potential cases.

Whatever the legal and privacy implications, knowing your tweets are being preserved for historical significance and stored in the same building as priceless documents like the Declaration of Independence, should be somewhat humbling.

Who knows, future generations may one day point to your “OMG you guys! @justinbieber just walked into @starbucks!” tweet with the same awe reserved for George Washington’s copy of the US Constitution.

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